Receptive: When promoting community development, it is not about subtracting languages but adding them, the reviewer and author agree. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Receptive: When promoting community development, it is not about subtracting languages but adding them, the reviewer and author agree. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

How is it possible that the most valuable resource a child brings to formal schooling, language, can be constantly recast as a problem?

This is the simple question Carolyn McKinley asks in her highly topical book, Language and Power in Post-Colonial Schooling: Ideologies in Practice. But it is simultaneously a key question that should hit the South African education system like an earthquake.

Because we indeed have to do with poet Van Wyk Louw’s famous little chisel: tap it, and it taps the country’s dark seam that must rupture and eventually "rip right through
the stars".

It is this earthquake, the disruption of a mighty, restrictive language ideology that SA’s education system needs.

Increasing anglicisation is the great concern in the analysis by McKinley, associate professor in the education department of the University of Cape Town. For this, she has created the term anglonormativity: the reinforcement of English as normative, with resulting supremacy in education.

She is highly critical of this situation, because it impedes schoolgoing children at an early stage from primary school level, by switching to English.

She talks of "asymmetrical relations of knowing". (It was found in the Child Gauge Report that the poor performance, especially of black children — who have home language education only up to grade 4 – was so extreme that by the end of the secondary school phase, they were at least five years behind their "privileged" peers who were taught in their home language up to grade 12.)

McKinley points out that the least multilingual people in SA are English speakers. However, monolingual education, especially white South African English, is no longer relevant in a globalising world and leads to harmful racial and class differences. Moreover, a dominant language does not only discriminate against speakers of other languages, it disadvantages monolinguists because they remain monolingual.

McKinley’s research is based especially on case studies in South African schools and on Spanish and Afro-American English in the US. Although she does not refer to it, this links to one of the latest publications on this phenomenon, Imprisoned in English by Anna Wierzbicka.

The Polish-born Australian linguist argues that although English has global meaning as a language of discourse, it is not a neutral instrument. There are good reasons why English should not be treated as the Voice of Truth and Human Understanding, and it is time for many areas of human sciences to set about breaking down the walls of the conceptual prison they have unwittingly built themselves by their parochial and ahistorical anglocentrism, according to Wierzbicka.

Furthermore, in authoritative reports by Unesco, it was found that the use of the former colonial languages in Africa benefited only the elite and disadvantaged the bulk of the populations, especially when it served as a smokescreen for political motives of domination and hegemony. Instead of using the indigenous languages along with the colonial languages, as McKinley also advocates, most African states still use the colonial language as the primary medium of instruction. This is one of the most important causes retarding development in Africa, with the negative results of low-quality education and marginalisation of the continent.

A shortcoming in McKinley’s book is that there is no mention of what has been achieved in Afrikaans, the one indigenous language that has been developed to the highest level of academic and scientific language.

It is precisely on this point that Kole Omotoso, a Nigerian intellectual who has taught at South African universities, declared in 1994: "If the Afrikaners need a new language that could make the western influence on the one hand and their African experience, on the other, intelligible, why would Africans think that they could have the same experience in the language of Europe alone, without domesticating that thought in African languages?"

McKinley’s progressive insight is nevertheless of great importance also for tertiary education, now that previously Afrikaans universities have ingloriously caved in, with tuition, recruitment and admission policies that give preference to English-speaking students and lecturers.

The universities of Pretoria, Free State and Unisa want to anglicise completely. Stellenbosch University has accepted a language policy that considers Afrikaans speakers and their language to be inferior.

McKinley is strongly in favour of dynamic multilingual education that should start as early as possible, while tuition in pupils’ most familiar language should continue for at least six to seven years.

Her approach includes bilingual or multilingual textbooks. But nowadays, universities, from where knowledge should trickle down to schools, prescribe English for compulsory study material.

The elevation of English as the dominant language with an Afrikaans option "on request", as in a supermarket, means only one thing: finito.

The monolingual sausage machine may produce "citizens of the world" (for other countries?) but, locally, anglicisation is exacerbating a dysfunctional education system, in which half the pupils never reach matric.

The already frightening failure rate at universities is rising, but nevertheless grandiose things like "world class" are sought on international rankings, instead of building up institutions that are primarily meaningful and valuable for the development of their communities, so that they thereby can rise to the universal level.

Do the English language bulls realise how retrogressive, how colonial, they really are?

In a postcolonial context, it is often stated that parents want to have their children educated in the dominant language, but McKinley points out that research in SA has revealed the opposite: by far, the most parents are more in favour of both their home language and English if they have a choice.

This effectively puts paid to the misguided propaganda that if you are pro-home language, you are anti-English.

At the launch of McKinley’s book, I spoke briefly to her about the GelykeKanse (Equal Opportunities) campaign to promote community development through home language. When I remarked that one should not detract from a language, she completed the sentence: "Yes, you must add!"

Clearly, this realisation will not easily penetrate, especially to so-called freedom movements that strive for hegemony on all terrains. Add to that Zuptafication in a gangster state, the stranglehold trade unions have on education and declining standards. Also the buzzwords "decolonisation" and "Africanisation", which unfortunately lead to the destruction of "colonial" symbols by book burners, tsotsi vandals and statue destroyers.

As one observes all this, you could become quite discouraged. But then, when the darkness threatens to overpower you, you must light a candle.

McKinley has lit a candle that can shine a bright light on the whole South African education system. 

Language and Power in Post-Colonial Schooling: Ideologies in Practice
Carolyn McKinley
Routledge

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